From ALT to Eikaiwa Instructor: 5 Practical Things to Consider

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After working as an ALT (assistant language teacher) for your first contracted job in Japan, you may be tempted to change jobs and work for an eikaiwa (private conversation school), instead. The eikaiwa schools come in countless varieties, with large companies like ECC, Coco Juku and AEON dominating the field, while there are also plenty of smaller chains and individual “boutique” schools to choose from, as well. Regardless of the size of the school, there are some important questions you need to ask your potential future employer before making the leap from an assistant language teacher in public schools to English instructor at an eikaiwa. Here are five things to consider to be prepared, but keep yourself legally working in Japan.

Knowing the answers to these five points can make the transition from ALT to eikaiwa much smoother and more stress-free in the long term.

1. Employment status

While this might seem like a no-brainer, you must learn what your employment status is at your company. Are you a jyugyoin (part-time employee), gyoumuitaku (subcontracted worker), a kikanshain (fixed-term contract worker), a hakenshain (temp worker), a hiseishain (non-permanent employee) or a seishain (permanent, full-time employee)?

If you are going to be employed part-time, subcontracted or a fixed term worker, you may not be able to take on the job if you do not have adequate means to pay for your living expenses unless you intend to take on extra work (which can affect your visa status). If you are going to be a non-permanent or permanent employee, then you’ll be able to take on the job, however there are three major services you’ll need to enroll in (and pay the monthly premiums for), while permanent employees are enrolled by their company, who deduct these payments from your paycheck for you.

This also impacts your income taxes — except for permanent employees (and generous employers of non-permanent staff), you will need to file your Japanese income taxes on your own. Hiring an accountant to do it for you can cost upwards of ¥120,000, but failure to pay your taxes can get your assets seized or you arrested if your ward is particularly proactive, so this is vital to know.

2. Health Insurance, pension and residence taxes

Only seishain have their residence taxes, health insurance and pensions taken care of by their companies, and since the payments for the year are determined by your previous year’s income, if you decide to take a pay cut in order to change jobs, you may find yourself living off instant ramen before payday if you have any other employment status and a weak savings account.

You’ll also want to check if you’re enrolled in shakai hokken (employee health and pension insurance) or if your company uses shohoken (private insurance), as certain medical clinics do not accept public health insurance and others won’t accept private insurance for certain procedures or medications.

3. Visa status

Know the answer to these questions: Is your visa sponsored or not? Will they sponsor it after a certain period of time? If not sponsored, will you be able to support yourself financially? If you have to renew your visa soon, will you be able to while working at this company?

Those questions are vital to know the answers to before signing any contracts. In the vast majority of cases, large- to medium-size eikaiwa are more than happy to sponsor your visa from the start and will help you with any renewal or change of status procedures, but smaller or boutique schools may not be equipped to do so, or may require a certain number of months (or years) of “reliable employment” before offering sponsorship. Reliable employment is up to the school’s discretion, though, so make of that what you will.

Most likely, if you are an ALT you have come to Japan on an Instructor visa, but to work for an eikaiwa, you’ll need to change your visa status to Specialist in Humanities. If so, you’ll need to fill out an Application for Change of Status of Residence (available on the immigration website),  get a Letter of Guarantee from your employer, as well as several other supporting documents from them. The approval process can take anywhere from one to three months depending on your situation, and isn’t always a guarantee — so this can be a nerve-wracking time.

4. Work conditions

What days will you be working? What are the start and end times? How many hours are you working per week? Will you have to work overtime? How many vacation days will you have? Are they free or fixed? Do you work on national holidays? Is there the option to work on national holidays, and if so, what’s the pay rate?

The number of hours you work also affects your insurance status.

While these might sound like strange questions to be asking, it’s important to know ahead of time what your working conditions might be like. A colleague of mine many years ago once worked for a boutique school that turned out to be a burakku gaisha (black company, a company that exploits its workers): two hours of daily overtime was mandatory; lunches, breaks and overtime were unpaid; new employees were required to work on national holidays; all employees at least two full weekends a month (15-16 day stretches without a break) and employees were not permitted to have or use phones in the school — they had to give them to their manager when they clocked in every morning. All highly illegal practices, but that’s the definition of a black company.

The number of hours you work also affects your insurance status. As of January 2017, people working 20 hours a week or more with a one-year contract, must be enrolled in a company’s shakai hokken plan — so make sure to read your contract carefully!

5. Emergencies

While nobody likes to think of emergencies arising, they can and do, and it’s important to have some sense of what is expected of you, and what you can expect of your company during a natural or manmade disaster.

After the 2011 Tohoku earthquake and tsunami, as well as its aftermath, several companies had to institute more concrete disaster plans, and now run drills or instruction courses for all new employees on what to do should a major earthquake, tsunami, fire or other such disaster take place. This is good for your own peace of mind, and that of your family back home as well.

Know your rights as a worker and you’ll be able to work in a safe and fulfilling environment.

On the other hand, while not as vital to know before agreeing to work for a company, you should be aware of their policies regarding family emergencies. However, this is more a point of being prepared than a deal breaker for taking on a job, in my opinion. Larger companies have comprehensive plans and can offer you a great deal of support and even take care of (some of) your bills while you’re gone, while smaller schools may only allow you a few days leave, or may require you to quit “with the option to return at a later date” — however, you may be asked to stay until they find your replacement, which defeats the purpose.

Know your rights as a worker and you’ll be able to work in a safe and fulfilling environment. If you think that there is something off about your employment status, you can also consult the Ministry of Health, Labour and Welfare, although their English response time is not always the fastest.

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A passionate renaissance woman, Hilary has lived in Tokyo for over 10 years and also works as a silver accessory and fashion designer as well as dabbles in painting and bonsai maintenance.

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